Zara* was only 10 years old when warlords in the Central African Republic recruited her to join their armed group. By that time in 2013, the country was almost a year into violent clashes between sectarian regimes after a coup against the sitting president.
“It took two days before the chiefs decided to enroll me. They had to check to make sure I was not a spy or an enemy fighter. In my group, I was the one running errands. Then, I graduated to a fighter,” says Zara.
Child soldiers are not uncommon on all sides of the conflict in the Central African Republic. More than one million people have been displaced from their homes, and most of the country is under local military rule. Between desperation to survive and the desire to protect their communities and avenge the deaths of their families, thousands of children have been forced to join the war.
When an armed group disbands, as Zara’s did, most children don’t receive support from their communities as they try to reintegrate back into society. They’re outright rejected and often become targets of retribution for taking part in the violence. For months, Zara and a few other children hid in the bushes outside of her community to avoid harm.
“We were afraid to go out because we committed a lot of crimes and people were ready to attack us,” Zara says. “We lived a very precarious life in the bush, surviving by eating wild fruits.”
Even when they can settle back into their hometowns, the destruction of hospitals and schools leaves children without the services they need to heal and grow — leaving girls vulnerable to re-recruitment.
But Zara, who is now 17 years old, has taken her life into her own hands. She received vocational training through a reintegration program from Plan International and now provides sewing services to those in her community. With the money she makes, she can buy food and clothing. And she’s not alone — Plan provides hundreds of children with the training and care they need to return to daily life in other cities and towns.
So far, more than 350 children in the Central African Republic have enrolled in either vocational training or educational “catch-up” courses through Plan to prepare them to go back to school. They also receive food and other items to ensure they’re in a safe and comfortable environment.
"Since I left the armed groups, I’ve had nothing, but Plan International gave me clothes and a mattress to sleep on,” Salissou, another child taking part in vocational training, says. “The food gives me the strength to go to school."
Children who want to learn work skills can pursue either sewing, catering or entrepreneurship. Once they’ve completed training, each child receives the equipment they need to immediately start working and earn money. More than 100 children have already completed their coursework, and many more are being enrolled.
For Zara’s work as a seamstress, she received a sewing machine, fabric and thread. Her services are in high demand where she lives since the profession is rare and typically only practiced by men. She’s determined to be a role model for other children in her community and shares her experiences to warn them of the dangers that follow when joining an armed group.
"I regret everything I did during the war, and when I think about what I experienced, I am traumatized,” Zara says.
Thousands of other girls are still being traumatized as armed conflict continues across the Central African Republic. Children are being used as soldiers, and many who finally find a way out don’t get to return to a safe and nurturing environment.
But you can help provide children with the training and resources they need to reintegrate into society and lead full, healthy lives. Your support to Plan will help communities protect children, so that no more will be taken into war.
“I tell all children, young people and girls specifically, never to take the path of weapons because with all that I went through and the change I am now experiencing in my life, I can testify that we can build Africa without weapons," Zara says.
*Name has been changed to protect identity.
This blog is made possible by the generous support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The contents are the responsibility of Plan International USA and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or those of the United States Government.